Study: 30% of 'At-Risk' Teen Girls Get Together With Strangers They Met Online

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Unrestrained online behavior leads to real world risks.

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PROBLEM: I'm going to put myself out there and say that most parents, regardless of how much they think they know about their teens' online lives, don't know everything about their teens' online lives. But some adolescents are less supervised than others; couple that with a history of abuse or neglect, and the question quickly becomes how to protect them from encountering even more harm.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers in Cincinnati recruited a cohort of girls aged 14 to 17, half of whom had been "maltreated," meaning neglected or physically or sexually abused. The other half had no reported history of maltreatment, but were in other respects their peers: Overall, half the group came from single-family homes, with a mean income of $40-50,000. 

The researchers analyzed the girls' public profiles from their "preferred social networking site" (if you want a good grasp on how quickly things change, this took place in 2008, and they were all on MySpace). They also analyzed their Internet risk activity by having them indicate their agreement with statements like: "I like going to websites that include sexual stuff," and "My parents are aware of the kinds of websites I visit."

RESULTS: The maltreated girls reported engaging more risky behavior, online and off, and had more risqué MySpace profiles. Thirty percent of all of the girls reported meeting up with someone offline who they'd initially met online. Those who did so more than once also sought out sexual content online and had the most provocative profiles. The study includes a helpful visualization of how these factors played out:

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Having parents who were actively involved in monitoring their Internet behavior reduced the girls' chances both of having a high-risk profile and of exhibiting real life high-risk behavior. Software installed to do the monitoring for parents, by blocking their access to certain sites, did not.

IMPLICATIONS: Whether or not they were maltreated, all of the subjects were considered "high risk," so these results can't be generalized to all adolescent Internet users. They do, however, bring to light a complicated cycle in need of interventions -- girls who already are at risk of harm are more likely to use the Internet in a way that further heightens that risk. "If someone is looking for a vulnerable teen to start an online sexual discourse, they will more likely target someone who presents herself provocatively," said Dr. Jennie Noll, the study's lead author. "Maltreatment poses a unique risk for online behavior that may set the stage for harm." 

The full study, "Association of Maltreatment With High-Risk Internet Behaviors and Offline Encounters" is published in the journal Pediatrics.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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